Citing an atmosphere of "almost suicidal denial" of security and safety rules, the head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has indefinitely suspended 19 employees--including some senior scientists--pending an investigation of possible violations. The suspensions, announced yesterday by Director George (Pete) Nanos, comes as most of the lab remains shut down following the loss of classified information and a laser accident that injured a junior researcher.
The suspensions mark the latest troubles for the lab, which is best known as the birthplace of the atom bomb. Over the last decade, it has been beset by chronic security, safety, and management problems, including the largely discredited charges that lab scientist Wen Ho Lee stole bomb secrets for China. Last year, the Department of Energy announced that it planned to put the lab's management contract up for competition, dealing a major blow to the University of California (UC), which has managed Los Alamos since its birth in 1943. Since then, UC has taken numerous steps to improve lab management, but its chances of holding on to the contract may now have been severely damaged.
The current troubles began with a 7 July inventory that concluded that two computer disks holding classified data had been improperly removed from a safe in the lab's Weapons Physics Directorate. Then, on 14 July, an intern's eye was apparently injured by a research laser that had not been turned off. Two days later, Nanos suspended all work at the laboratory, saying it was clear that employees weren't taking security and safety rules seriously. "This willful flouting of the rules must stop, and I don't care how many people I have to fire to make it stop," he wrote in a fiery 16 July memo.
Nanos would not identify the suspended employees, but said four were involved in the laser accident, with the rest linked to the loss of the classified information. All will continue to receive pay, but are barred from entering the laboratory without an escort. The FBI is involved in the investigation of the lost disks.